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SketchUp 4 grafts on high-end modeling and texturing to its core creative 3D sketching.

SketchUp is a unique program designed to bridge the gap between 2D drawing and 3D modeling. At its heart is a brilliantly simple “inference” system that constantly checks the line you are drawing on the 2D screen against the scene’s underlying 3D geometry to enable you to simply draw true 3D objects. It’s a breath of fresh air compared to the complexities of traditional modeling and CAD - as the company slogan puts it, it’s “3D for the rest of us”.

SketchUp’s working environment has also always been comparatively friendly and intuitive for what is by its nature a complex field - but that doesn’t mean it can’t be improved. In this latest release the menus have been rationalized, splitting the main drawing and manipulating tools for example, while new improved onscreen indicators highlight inference locking, squares and golden sections. Viewing and navigation has also been improved with new options for changing the camera’s field of view, zooming to objects and quick panning. The program’s palettes have also been revamped with the Components palette now providing thumbnail previews and the addition of an Entity Info palette to give feedback on the currently selected object(s). Generally it’s a smoother working experience all round.

So what new power is there? As well as its main drawing tools, SketchUp has always prided itself on its innovative and intuitive manipulation tools such as the excellent Push-Pull tool for painlessly managing extrusions. New in version 4 is the much-trumpeted Follow Me tool which allows users to push or pull a surface along a path. This is ideal for jobs such as adding mouldings to a fire surround or, when used with a circular path, for producing rotated shapes such as bottles and vases. The Follow Me tool is certainly powerful, effectively adding both sweep and lathe-style modeling to SketchUp’s functionality but it’s certainly not child’s play to get to grips with.

SketchUp 4 is designed to bridge the gap between 2D drawing and 3D modeling.

The second major advance in SketchUp 4’s modeling capabilities is much more low-key but proves even more powerful. Now when you have two overlapping objects you can right-click on one and select the Intersect with Model command to automatically create edges where the objects intersect. You can then delete those portions that you don’t want to keep and go on to manipulate the new subdivided faces. Essentially the new intersection capability provides the benefits of traditional Boolean-style operations for quickly creating complex shapes and is especially effective when used with groups which effectively act as cookie-cutters. Again though to make the most of it takes some understanding and effort.

Once you’re happy with your 3D objects, you’re ready to format them. SketchUp doesn’t provide the typical procedural materials of 3D apps but instead concentrates on excellent support for tiled bitmaps including real-time recolouring. In version 4 this bitmap control is taken to a new level. To begin with, you can now quickly and interactively scale the texture tile when you apply it. You can also fine-tune the positioning, scale, rotation, and shear of the tiled pattern after it has been applied, though this is surprisingly awkward involving entering “fixed pin mode” and then manipulating coloured corner pins. You can also switch to “free pin mode” in which you can stretch the bitmap like a skin over a drum which is especially useful when using a photo as the basis for a model.

Textures are usually applied to flat surfaces, which is how SketchUp builds up its models, but for objects with apparently curved surfaces such as cylinders - which are actually made up of numerous smaller flat planes - this can cause problems. Version 4 provides a solution involving placing the sized bitmap in front of the object and then turning it into a material to wrap around the surface. Alternatively, rather than wrapping the texture around a complex surface you can import your bitmap and then directly project it onto your model. Even better, you can continue to edit your model and the projected texture automatically follows the new contours. An obvious use is to convert a scan of a contoured map into a projection slide which you can then quickly build up into an accurate and ready-textured 3D terrain using the Freehand Pencil, Push-Pull and Move tools.

The new texture controls are complex but powerful.

The power is impressive and again opens up whole new areas of functionality. This is typical of the release as a whole. With its new sweeping, lathing and Boolean-style modeling and its texture wrapping and projection, SketchUp 4 is increasingly encroaching on traditional high-end 3D territory. It’s a feeling reinforced by other new professional features such as the ability to check your model for invalid geometry, to purge materials and layers, improved AutoCAD import (including support for solids and splines) and especially the new Ruby API which allows users to automate their work.

The downside to version 4’s new power is that you really need to be an expert user to fully benefit from it and I can’t help feeling that some of the spontaneity and sheer fun of working in SketchUp is being sacrificed. At least version 4 does add one new feature “for the rest of us”. A new “Face Me” option has been added to components which makes them always face the camera – ideal for making the most of 2D objects such as people and objects by ensuring that they look as 3-dimensional as possible. It’s a useful reminder of SketchUp at its best: easily and effectively bridging the 2D to 3D divide.

Ease of Use
Value for Money

ratings out of 6

Tom Arah

September 2004

requirements Pentium III 400MHz, 128MB of RAM , 20MB of hard disk space, Windows 98, Me, NT 4 (SP3), 2000 or XP, 1024x768 display, CD-ROM.

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